Does sugar equal oil?
It was loaned to me by my cousin because he said it was about Quakers. I’m not sure where he got it; I wouldn’t have pegged him as the political activist type.
It’s about the British campaign to abolish slavery, what the author calls “the first grassroots human rights campaign”.
From the inside jacket cover:
“In 1787, twelve men gathered in a London printing shop to pursue a seemingly impossible goal: ending slavery in the largest empire on earth. Along the way, they would pioneer most of the tools citizen activists still rely on today, from wall posters and mass mailings to boycotts and lapel pins. This talented group combined a hatred of injustice with uncanny skill in promoting their cause. Within five years, more than 300,000 Britons were refusing to eat the chief slave-grown product, sugar; London’s smart set was sporting antislavery badges created by Josiah Wedgewood; and the House of Commons had passed the first law banning the slave trade.”
We all know that the abolition of slavery was one of the great movements of the Religious Society of Friends. Most of us know that it was not an automatic decision, but a long dreary struggle, even within the Society. It was interesting to me to read earlier this year, in The Reformation of American Quakerism, 1748-1783 by Jack D. Marietta, © 1984, that one of the reasons that opposition to slavery was finally made official was that the fighting of the American Revolution in Philadelphia made it difficult to get to Yearly Meeting for a few years, and so only the most dedicated stalwarts showed up, thus making it easier to achieve unity on this controversial proposition. Even after Friends in the U.S. agreed it was wrong to hold slaves, there was not unity on whether it was right to try to make others give up their slaves, especially if that meant contradicting the laws of various states and the nation.
But the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, as they called their group, (p.110) “…knew [their] major allies would be the Quakers: they were rock-firm in their convictions and had a strong tradition of supporting their beliefs with generous donations. As organizers, they had a national network – an international one, in fact, because of their close ties to American Quakers…”(p. 95) “They opened a bank account, hired a lawyer and drew up long lists, page after page of names from all over Great Britain, and beside each person the name of the committee member assigned to contact him. They were mobilizing the Quaker network.” They were also astute in having the non-Quaker members of the committee sign the letters they sent to public officials, thus avoiding the need to use “thee” and “thou” or leave out the customary honorifics, or use peculiar dating systems, which had stymied the Quakers’ effectiveness until then. (p.107)
But it is somewhat of a straw man argument that most draws my attention:
“A latent feeling was in the air, but an intellectual undercurrent disapproving of slavery was something very different from the belief that anything could ever be done about it. An analogy today might be how some people think about automobiles. For reasons of global warming, air quality, traffic, noise and dependence on oil, one can argue, the world might be better off without cars. And what happens when India and China have as many cars per capita as the Untied States? Even if you depend on driving to work, it’s possible to agree there’s a problem. A handful of dedicated environmentalists try to practice what they preach, and travel only by train bus, bicycle or foot. Yet does anyone advocate a movement to ban automobiles from the face of the earth?” (p.86)
Hochschild is using this as an example of how impossible it seemed in the late 1700’s to end slavery. It was commonplace in all countries. It had been around since time immemorial. It was the backbone of the British economy. Doing without slavery seemed unthinkable. But in fact, it ended, rather precipitously, measured against the centuries in which it persisted.
In another place Hochschild likens sugar in the 1700’s to oil in the 21st century. “Just as oil drives the geopolitics of our own time, the most important commodity on European minds then was sugar, and the overseas territories that mattered most were the islands so wonderfully suited for growing it.” (p.54)
What if we did advocate a movement to ban automobiles from the face of the earth? What if we did organize against the gluttony amongst us in order to preserve the mere lives of people in the Middle East? What if our country did not feel the need to wage offensive wars just to preserve our unlimited access to oil?
It seems impossible to think of now. But, “Within five years, more than 300,000 Britons were refusing to eat the chief slave-grown product, sugar…”
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